Improving walkability in winter



By now, nearly every urban planner should be familiar with the term walkability as well as its rationale and numerous community benefits. Despite this, there are times during the winter months when walkability can be anything but easy due to snow and particularly ice. Having fallen twice last winter, I can attest to the fact that it hurts and also makes one less apt to walk in slick conditions despite the clear health benefits and refreshing winter air.

So how do we improve walkability during the winter months? Several options may be available, though not all of them are easy solutions.  They are presented in no particular order of preference. Any additions to the list would be most welcome.

1. Sidewalk clearing regulations – these are fairly common in northern latitudes. Clean the snow off your sidewalk within 24 hours. Sounds simple enough, but enforcement can be an issue as not every property owner complies. It also does not address the freeze and thaw effect which can produce very slippery and treacherous sidewalks. This is particularly a problem in areas that remain shaded and cannot get sunlit warmth on them.

Added option – add a provision to the municipal code which requires property owners to also apply ice/snow melt to sidewalks. Sand is virtually worthless for freeze and thaw and eventually becomes trapped within the ice.

2. Heated sidewalks – this may sound like science fiction, but in the long run placing heating coils or steam pipes under sidewalks during reconstruction projects may be less costly than maintaining them after every snowfall or handling slip and fall lawsuits. While it is unlikely that heated sidewalks would be viable across the entire community, certain areas could benefit from them like business and shopping districts, near schools, or near hospitals and care centers.



3. Windbreaks – provided they do not impede traffic and pedestrian visibility, landscape windbreaks may be an option for limiting snow from drifting across sidewalks while also adding a visual amenity to the route. The windbreaks would have the added benefit of providing some added barrier from winter’s biting wind chill.

4. Building and site design – situating structures and landscaping in a manner which reduces shading across sidewalks and increases radiant heat from sunlight would allow Mother Nature to aid in snow and ice removal along sidewalks. It is amazing how much warm the winter sun can produce when given the opportunity.

5. Buffer strips – incorporating a five foot wide green buffer strip between the street and the sidewalk provides a catchment area for snow being plowed off the street without occupying the sidewalks themselves.

6. Enclosed walkways – Minneapolis has miles of skywalks in its downtown district. While not necessary the most economical or streetscape friendly approach, the skywalks certainly allow for increased pedestrian movement in the heart of the winter. Underground walkways may be another viable option in certain areas. Purdue University has a number of under ground connections on campus that prove to be very handy in mid-winter or on rainy days throughout the year.

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11 Responses to Improving walkability in winter

  1. I disagree with most of these, especially 4, 5 and 6. Green buffer strips are a pedestrian-last design that make jaywalking difficult and streets unnecessarily wide. Skywalks undermine freedom and streetscape vibrancy, as you’ve identified. Wide streets leave pedestrians exposed the elements. Heated sidewalks are an economic and environmental disaster.

    Instead, we should look to successful snowy, walkable neighborhoods. Like ski resorts, and indeed most alpine villages.

    1. Keep most streets narrow, like 12ft building to building. Redefine the ROW if they’re too wide at the moment. The buildings will protect pedestrians while it’s snowing. [Perform the windbreak function in 3.]
    2. Compress snowfall instead of ploughing it.
    3. If you get lots of snow, ensure your Transect definitions include a well raised ground floor.

    A few streets will need to be wider complete boulevards, and they can have green buffers for ploughing. The tree line on the access lane buffer plays the role of the facing buildings on the narrow streets. More:


    • Rick Brown says:

      Thank you for your comments, Neil. As Holland shows, heated sidewalks can work – there since 1988. Not sure I agree with you about compacting the snow. On heavily traveled roads I think they would become skating rinks, especially without regular refresher snowfalls to add traction.


  2. lampenj says:

    As a resident of Holland (Park Township to be exact) I can’t begin to tell you how fortunate we are to have the heated streets and sidewalks downtown. It not only makes it safer in the winter, but it makes it feasible to stroll and window shop instead of worrying about stepping in puddles or slush piles.


  3. Dave Bee says:

    Holland’s sidewalks are nice. Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids also have them in the downtown areas. The problem is outside of the these limited areas. I run every morning, every day of the year, and I am always amazed at how few people and businesses bother to clear their walks. Even worse, East Grand Rapids “clears” the residential sidewalks with a tractor. The results are really just compacted snow that turns to ice and forces everyone to walk or run in the street. I broke my leg six years ago on one of these cleared sidewalks.

    The best way to address this issue is to set a policy where people must clear their sidewalks — and enforce it. People should care about their neighbors’ safety and make an effort to be good citizens. You can do all of the designing, planning, and plowing that you want — but it won’t take the place of being a good citizen. How we encourage that is the question!


  4. John Wallace says:

    Having been to Holland a number of times, I do like their snow melt sidewalks. I can’t speak to the economics of it, but I do know that many times it is easier for governments to come up with capital for a project rather than ongoing maintenance money.

    Skywalks can be good and bad for downtowns. In winter (cold climates), to the extent that you wouldn’t travel on foot from one destination but for the skywalks, they are a good thing. If they are being used in good weather, they certainly can detract from street vitality.

    If you plan to plow snow from sidewalks in the winter you are probably also committed to spreading a substance to prevent slipping on ice. Salt is what people typically think of, but it can be hard on the concrete sidewalks. There other salt-like products that do are much less harsh to the concrete, these materials would be preferred.


  5. Interesting discussion. I have an observation and a question. First, when I lived in Berne, Switzerland, it was quite pleasant to walk around the town even in winter because the streets were arcaded, with residential above the arcades. Second, I would love to hear suggestions about keeping our urban parks more usable all year round as well. One of the things I do is lead outdoor fitness classes in public parks and we inevitably cancel some classes due to icy conditions. Then, we get cabin fever!


    • Rick Brown says:

      Thank you, Nancy. Here locally, we have special winter sport and activities in the parks including snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Also, there is an annual polar bear 5K.


      • “Cool!” I always have t laugh when people are astonished that we exercise all year round–i have to remind them that all kinds of crazy people do things like ice skating and skiing in the cold! But in my comment I was referring to changes in the parks’ built environment…


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